Sunday, January 31, 2010

War is the force that gives them meaning

Ever since the first war there have probably been people like Fred and Kimberly Kagan, two of the staunchest advocates of imperial slaughter, diligently carving out on stone tablets all the noble reasons why Dear Leader needed to wipe out the Canaanites. So long as people continue to view power with awe and respect instead of disdain and disgust, there will always be a class of professional worshippers eagerly expounding on the virtues of state-sponsored mass killing, from the supposed links between a strong army and a superior culture -- Sparta of course fondly remembered for its wealth of philosophers and poets -- to the effectiveness of war as a promoter of peace (an argument most recently made by President Obama's Nobel speech writers). And those that join this class, however, are invariably creepy and banal, not exactly a winning combination.

A profile of the Kagans in Newsweek illustrates this point, showing our modern courtiers to be the, well, pathetic creatures that you already suspected they were:
The wonkish, heavy-set Frederick, who grew up reenacting battles with cardboard cutouts, earned a doctorate at Yale in Russian and Soviet military history, then spent 10 years at West Point teaching about wars. Along the way, he married Kimberly Kessler, a fellow Yalie with interests almost eerily like his. (She now heads a small Washington think tank called the Institute for the Study of War.) From the outset, Frederick Kagan, who'd long been dubious about the kind of high-tech warfare Rumsfeld championed, also felt the war in Iraq had been mismanaged, and, with the help of retired Gen. Jack Keane, convinced Bush this was so. Enter the surge. One of those most impressed was Gen. David Petraeus, now head of Central Command. Petraeus (the recipient of the 2010 Irving Kristol Award, who will deliver the Irving Kristol Lecture at AEI in May) calls Fred Kagan "brilliant," "exceedingly hardworking," and "a true student of history."
At his invitation, Frederick and Kimberly Kagan, an odd sight in flak jackets, have taken seven inspection tours of Iraq since April 2007. "They don't have kids, so this is their child," Petraeus said in a phone interview. Twice last year they went to Afghanistan, the second time as one sixth of a 12-member civilian team advising Gen. Stanley McChrystal. The group's findings buttressed McChrystal's request for 40,000 additional troops.
Possessing neither the physical ability nor courage to fight in the wars they attempt to provide intellectual justification for, and having few interests outside scholarship in the field of mass death and destruction, the Kagans live vicariously through armed conflict and the killing of others by others. Their personal lives so obviously lacking, they find meaning through murder. Say what you will about it, but war is not something that can't simply be ignored; it's something destined for the history books, and it may be many things but dull isn't one of them (the popular cultures of countries that perpetuate war -- *cough* Jersey Shore -- on the other hand . . .). Boring people who find peacetime unfulfilling, then, are attracted to the excitement and purpose they perceive as the prime qualities of war.

As former New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges has written:
"The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in live. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living. Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of much of our lives become apparent. Trivia dominates our conversations and increasingly our airwaves. And war is an enticing elixir. It gives us resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble."
There's no reason to doubt that the Kagans view themselves as quite noble. But instead of fetishizing war and fucking over a bunch of poor foreigners to find meaning in life, couldn't the Kagans just go fuck themselves?

(via Michael Brendan Dougherty)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

'Everyone votes for a dictator'

Patrick McGoohan takes on the electoral system:

Update (2/13/10): It looks like the powers that be have removed this video. You can, however, watch the full episode from which the clip was taken for free at AMC TV, which is for the best, really.

An indictment of the liberal/conservative movement

Michael Brendan Dougherty, an editor with The American Conservative -- perhaps the only remaining publication on the right that happens to be interesting -- has penned a deservedly scathing letter to the conservative movement. An excerpt:
You may not know this. But all the smartest people on the Right are basically ashamed to be associated with you. Your “success” in building a set of near-permanent institutions, think-tanks, and magazines to promote your ideals in an uncontaminated environment leaves us with two choices:
1) Sell out to the movement. That is, we may occupy ourselves by explaining that whatever the GOP is promoting—whether it be torture, pre-emptive war, Mutually Assured Destruction, or supply-side economics—is an enduring Western value. If John Boehner is doing it, we're supposed to figure out why Edmund Burke would support it.
2) Sell out the movement. That is, pitch our articles to liberal audiences. Trash the movement (like I’m doing), and trade our actual conservative convictions for the ephemeral respect of our peers.
If one of us tries to walk a fine line between these two, we’ll be accused of either disloyalty by the hacks or of hackery by the principled and aloof. One way merits a secure gig in the movement's intellectual ghetto. The other may win a few of us a higher status but a more insecure job at a respected outlet.
This situation makes actual arguments difficult, since everyone assumes we are simply enacting long-term branding strategies, rather than stating our views honestly. You’ve made it impossible for us to have a conversation.

Because you’ve made yourself a prostitute for the GOP, a cynical and corrupt organization since Reconstruction, all of your young geniuses are tainted. People don’t respect their ideas, because they can’t assume they are genuinely held, rather than cynical ploys to keep Joe Palinsupporter in line.

And so, young conservatives hate themselves. They live in fear that if they do state their actual views, they’ll be forbidden from any meaningful work in the future outside the movement.
Notable is that Dougherty, a committed right-winger, could have written much the same if he were seeking to author an indictment of liberalism in the age of Obama, what with the serious, respectable types like Kevin Drum bemoaning anyone to the left of Genghis Khan who dares question Democratic orthodoxy -- and war-making -- when it's Nancy Pelosi and the Blue Team in power. Meek criticism of tactics and strategy, perhaps, but a comprehensive indictment of the Democratic Party? Good luck making a living writing for Counterpunch, asshole.

Whether one identifies politically as left or right -- whatever those terms mean when the embrace of the corporate warfare state is a fully bipartisan endeavor -- "the movement" always takes precedence over the principles that at one time or another animated it, as the likes of David Sirota and Jane Hamsher are no doubt learning. Power corrupts, and party politics corrupt absolutely.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

We're number one (at killing Muslims)!

It just wouldn’t be Sunday if NBC’s Meet the Press wasn’t being used by some senior government official to make outrageously false but politically advantageous claims -- after all, as folks like former Vice President Dick Cheney realized, it does make an ideal platform for disseminating disinformation. As surprising as the sun rising in the East, host David Gregory this week continued the program’s longstanding role as a megaphone for power, permitting White House adviser Valerie Jarrett to make unchallenged this claim in response to a question regarding the release of a new purported recording from Osama bin Laden:
We have no independent confirmation that that is, in fact, his voice. But let's look at--the fact of the matter is, is that he's a murderer, he has attacked Americans. In fact, he's killed more Muslims than any other group in the region. And so the president is committed to going after al-Qaeda and all of their affiliates and bringing them to justice.
While that statement might work on the gut level (it just feels right, doesn't it?) and thus fly in the world of politics -- David Gregory sure as hell didn’t challenge it -- it is demonstrably, laughably (in a morbid sense) untrue. The group that has killed more Muslims in the Middle East than any other group in the region is, indisputably, the United States military; over the last few decades alone it has killed well over a quarter million Muslims. Indeed, as Stephen Walt pointed out last year at his Foreign Policy blog in response to a particularly inane Tom Friedman column, the most conservative estimate has the U.S. government killing 288,000 Muslims since 1983 -- a number that that's less than half some estimates of preventable deaths caused by U.S. sanctions against Iraq during the 1990s.

Still, assuming the most conservative estimate is true, “the United States has killed nearly 30 Muslims for every American” killed both by terrorists and insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, says Walt. “The real ratio is probably much higher, and a reasonable upper bound for Muslim fatalities (based mostly on higher estimates of ‘excess deaths’ in Iraq due to the sanctions regime and the post-2003 occupation) is well over one million, equivalent to over 100 Muslim fatalities for every American lost.”

Even if one were to accept a broad, expansive definition of “al Qaeda,” comprising all the organizations from Somalia to Yemen that claim some sort of affiliation with or affinity for bin Laden, the group he heads -- assuming he’s still alive -- has killed at most perhaps 1/100th the Muslims the U.S. government has, which I guess says something for American productivity, if not morality. Bastards, no doubt, al Qaeda's killing power nevertheless still not approach the awe (and shock)-inspiring might of cluster bombs, Predator drones and half-trillion defense budgets.

When al Qaeda kills Muslims, though, they at least acknowledge it.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The opportunity cost of elections

During the 2008 campaign, tens of thousands of people turned out to volunteer on behalf of Barack Obama, staffing phone banks, raising funds and creating a network of likeminded individuals dedicated to a shared purpose (to a lesser extent, so did volunteers, as there were, for John McCain). But while a bedazzling amount of human and financial resources were displayed, no doubt, it’s not clear they were put to the best use, to put it mildly. Take your self-styled progressive who -- for whatever inexplicable reason -- thought the election of Obama would mark the advent of a brave new single-payer nation, the president abandoning his traditional role as commander in chief in favor of performing gay marriages in the White House Rose Garden. The fear -- and love -- of Sarah Palin can make people do all sorts of crazy things.

But what if those resources, instead of being dedicated to bringing one of two militaristic corporatists to power, were instead put to a better cause? What if, instead of relying on politicians as the middlemen, those who put so much time and effort in getting Obama elected in the hopes of achieving meaningful health care reform -- relying on politicians as the middle men, hoping they keep their lofty campaign promises -- had redirected those efforts to taking power into their own hands and bring affordable health care to their own communities? Given comparable resources to those put toward a frivolous and overhyped pursuit like an election, community groups could have instead begun the process of bringing affordable health care to their own neighborhoods, redirecting the misallocation of energy from empowering some politician toward a cause much more likely to bring tangible results.

What in economics is called an “opportunity cost” -- the inability to expend resources on one task after another is chosen -- is equally applicable to the field of politics: when activists band together on behalf of electing more and better politicians, they aren’t banding together to improve their own communities, clean up their own rivers, stop the next war. While one would hope connections made during election campaigns would persist afterwards, and that those involved in electing Obama would continue to work towards shared (though better) causes, the evidence suggests that a year after his inauguration much of that movement, insofar as it was, has disbanded. With the reality of power, much of the hopeful idealism -- or naivete -- of some during the campaign has evaporated; the organizing power of the Obama political machine severely hampered by the lack of enthusiasm for the president’s policies. With the collapse in peoples’ hope for change comes a commensurate curbing in the power of the groups that arose to support Obama, indicating that organizing power won't be around to help a neighbor during hard times.

My advice: next time around, instead of phone-banking for Obama, one should spend that time that would have spent trying to convince some Iowan the president really means it this time giving back to your own community -- you might actually see a few changes.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Dead foreigners: the price of healthcare reform?

To qualify as a respectable liberal, one must of course value the life of an American citizen over that of any foreigner. Oh, there’s the necessary uplifting rhetoric about promoting democracy and human rights abroad, the passionate arguments on behalf of the poor citizens of countries that inexplicably align with U.S. foreign policy objectives. But when it comes down to it, any good liberal will gladly take the technocratic thrill of a modest reduction in healthcare costs over the life of some poor bastard in Afghanistan.

Sound too harsh? Then perhaps you haven’t been reading Kevin Drum, a pundit who rose to fame as a liberal supporter of the Iraq war, demonstrating a reputation for foresight that has been impressing the blogosphere for years and landed him a gig with Mother Jones. In a recent post, he chides those perpetual adolescents that judge politicians by their policies, not their parties, and who fail to understand that we're all better off with a liberal committing war crimes than Sarah Palin. While noting -- correctly -- that those who supported Obama and honestly thought he would bring about fundamental change in policy only saw in the man what they wanted to see, Drum is concerned some of them have opened their eyes and might be feeling the temptation to leave Team Blue:
The striking thing to me, though, is how fast the left has turned on him. Conservatives gave Bush five or six years before they really turned on him, and even then they revolted more against the Republican establishment than against Bush himself. But the left? It took about ten months. And the depth of the revolt against Obama has been striking too. As near as I can tell, there's a small but significant minority who are so enraged that they'd be perfectly happy to see his presidency destroyed as a kind of warning to future Democrats. It's extraordinarily self-destructive behavior — and typically liberal, unfortunately. Just ask LBJ, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton. And then ask them whether liberal revolt, in the end, strengthened liberalism or conservatism.
The striking thing to me is that Drum finds this opposition to Obama to be a bad thing, as if blind conservative support for Bush were something to admire and replicate, not something to abhor and repudiate. There is also some irony in his bemoaning the “liberal revolt” to LBJ on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, though it does clearly demonstrate the respectable liberal’s tolerance for mass murder -- hundreds of thousands of dead Vietnamese a necessary price for the Great Society back home; opposition to the purveyor of violence an act of myopic betrayal. In typical liberal fashion, though, Drum has plenty of rhetoric, in this case, “all sorts of complaints about Obama”:
He's been weaker on civil liberties than I'd like. His approach to bank regulation has been far too friendly to financial interests. I'm not thrilled with his escalation in Afghanistan. He hasn't moved as quickly on gay rights as I hoped. And he hasn't used the bully pulpit nearly as effectively as I think he's capable of. He could afford to attack obstructionism and conservative retrenchment far more directly than he has.
But that’s no reason “to turn on him,” opposition to the perpetuation of longstanding government policies reduced to a matter of personal support for some guy with a photogenic family. We must remember that the “national security community has tremendous influence; the financial lobby has a stranglehold; Obama told us explicitly during the campaign that he planned to escalate in Afghanistan”.

What our Exhibit A inadvertently illustrates, though, is that he too is one of those naive suckers who thought candidate Obama was the second coming (of Jesus or FDR, depending on one’s upbringing). The idea that Obama is in any way boxed in politically by Wall Street and the military-industrial complex implies a belief that his personal preference would be to oppose these interests’ agendas rather than promote them, which is not all that different from believing one of Santa’s elves shot JFK. Obama has show no inclination to impose those interests, with his actions -- and the tremendous amount the financial industry spent getting him elected -- in fact indicating quite the opposite.

However, despite failing to fulfill some of the lofty expectation of him, a corporatist healthcare reform bill, “the greatest piece of social legislation since Medicare” to the true believers, is reason enough to support the president, particularly if your career rests on steadfastly supporting the Democratic Party -- sometimes begrudgingly, sometimes with qualms, but always in the end. And hell, Obama told us he was going to needlessly kill a bunch of foreigners before he was elected, so can you really complain -- and aren't a few thousand dead people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia worth the extension of a few lives here at home (assuming the "reform" bill is implemented as its advocates presume)? This is what passes for respectable liberalism today; indeed, The Nation is running a perhaps even more offensively silly piece on how Obama is "stunningly similar" to MLK, by necessity refraining from comment on King's uncompromising (and inconvenient) call for an immediate end to the Vietnam war.

To the deans of the establishment left, the victims of U.S. wars and manless air strikes do not elicit the same sympathy they did for King, or for others with functioning consciences. Obama's escalation of the Afghanistan war, for instance, might be unfortunate, boneheaded even, but it's just another policy, and in Washington its impolite to allow a policy disagreement to get between friends -- and one typically doesn't call a friend a murderer. Something might appear morally wrong with accepting the escalated killing of poor people abroad in exchange for a hike in the minimum wage and a president who can articulate a coherent thought from time to time, but that's an opinion likely to confine one to the fringes of the political wilderness if expressed in polite company.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Intelligence-resistant columnists

Like most Americans, David Brooks has probably spent all of five minutes in the last decade thinking about Haiti. But like any good imperialist or New York Times columnist -- apologies if I repeat myself -- Brooks is not about to let his ignorance of the country and its people prevent him from drafting a sweeping assessment of Haitian society and the root cause of the nation’s crushing poverty and the widespread devastation wrought by the recent earthquake: Haitian society, of course. Being no Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin, but rather a respectable conservative who no doubt dutifully sends money to his local NPR affiliate come pledge week, Brooks is careful to assure his readers, by way of the obligatory referencing of some other banal establishment political thinker, that he is safely within the mainstream -- he’s just pointing out an uncomfortable truth, is all. While we’re “supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures,” Brooks writes -- and anyone who has ever heard variations of those words from a drunk bar stool pundit can predict what comes next -- some cultures are just “more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them.”

Space constraints preventing any discussion of the redeeming values of the Haitian people, Brooks reduces their culture to four attributes he believes caused the Earth’s tectonic plates to shift: “the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile”; “high levels of social mistrust”; “Responsibility is often not internalized”; and “Child-rearing practices often involve neglect in the early years and harsh retribution when kids hit 9 or 10.”

Gliding past Haiti’s history of colonialism, economic exploitation and U.S. military occupation with the glib observation that other nations with superficially similar histories are doing okay today, Brooks concludes that it is the culture of Haiti at fault for what may be as many as 100,000 deaths. Since they have shown themselves incapable of improving their lot during the 3 1/2 minutes the U.S. has respected Haiti’s sovereignty in the last 100 years, it is now time to take up the white man’s burden “promote locally led paternalism,” he says, noting “the programs that really work involve intrusive paternalism”, which apparently involves repeating corporate P.R. jargon until it means something:
It’s time to find self-confident local leaders who will create No Excuses countercultures in places like Haiti, surrounding people — maybe just in a neighborhood or a school — with middle-class assumptions, an achievement ethos and tough, measurable demands.
Unbeknownst to the bespectacled armchair bombardier of the Times U.S. officials have already tried “intrusive paternalism” in Haiti -- during the two decades the U.S. occupied the country, an historical episode that, like U.S. support for the dictators who followed, Brooks never gets to mentioning. But as historian Hans Schmidt writes in his account of the 1915-1934 U.S. occupation of Haiti, undertaken to protect U.S. corporate interests by President Woodrow “sovereignty for white people” Wilson, American military officers themselves instituted a work program intended to goad the lazy, shiftless Haitian people into productivity. “This system, known as corvée, had its historical roots in the unpaid labor which French peasants owed their feudal lords and was strikingly similar to the corvée employed by the British occupation to dredge canals in Egypt in the 1880s and 1890s,” Schmidt notes. Those less prone to nuance might also refer to the system as slavery.

Besides violating the most basic human rights of those it was imposed upon, the system did achieve some successes, including “the construction of an impressive network of roads connecting major towns, with the greatest achievement being a 170-mile unpaved highway between Port-au-Prince and the northern center of Cap Haitien.” And indeed, the program was rigorous, with Admiral H. S. Knapp reporting to his higher-ups back in Washington that it “appears to be undeniable” that Haitians had been forced to work far from their homes and under armed guard, “marched to and from their work bound together.” Foreshadowing Brooks’ suggestion, the system also employed the talents of self-confident local leaders, who headed up some of the corvée labor groups and were known for having “practiced brutality on their charges,” which I guess shows the natives of Haiti are capable of quickly learning from their American betters. I’m guessing this probably isn’t the exact system our newly minted Haitian expert has in mind, though, but perhaps that’s only because he’s not aware of it.


Other things Brooks neglects to mention in his column:

-- Hurricane Katrina, the fact that funding for New Orleans' levies were diverted to pay for occupying Iraq, and what that says about American society

-- The moral and philosophical case for why the very countries that have exploited and brutalized Haiti in the past should be empowered to fundamentally alter its society.

-- And why in particular a country like the U.S. that was the last of the major powers to renounce the notion that a man can own another man -- and which one angry Frenchman observed is a historical peculiarity for passing from barbarism to decadence without ever once knowing civilization -- is entitled to lecture anyone on culture.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

From Heritage's lips to Obama's ear

The Heritage Foundation yesterday:
The U.S. government response should be bold and decisive. It must mobilize U.S. civilian and military capabilities for short-term rescue and relief and long-term recovery and reform. President Obama should tap high-level, bipartisan leadership. Clearly former President Clinton, who was already named as the U.N. envoy on Haiti, is a logical choice. President Obama should also reach out to a senior Republican figure, perhaps former President George W. Bush, to lead the bipartisan effort for the Republicans.
The news today:
President Obama has tapped George W. Bush, a prime target of Democratic criticism during the presidential campaign for his response to Hurricane Katrina, to help lead Haiti relief efforts in the aftermath of the earthquake that devastated the country two days ago.
Bush will join up with former President Bill Clinton, who is also the United Nations special envoy for Haiti.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

'Unambiguous intelligence' unambiguously wrong

When the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran (pdf) was released, it was a blow to those within the Bush administration agitating for another preemptive war, as it declared that all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies had come to believe that Iran halted whatever design work on a nuclear weapon they may have once engaged in back in 2003 -- and most importantly, that there was no sign Iran had restarted weapons program since. At the time, this assessment was welcomed by both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, each trying to out do the other in their scathing press statements denouncing the Bush administration’s bellicose rhetoric about a non-existent threat.

Here’s what candidate Obama had to say back in December ’07:
By reporting that Iran halted its nuclear weapon development program four years ago because of international pressure, the new National Intelligence Estimate makes a compelling case for less saber-rattling and more direct diplomacy. The juxtaposition of this NIE with the president's suggestion of World War III serves as an important reminder of what we learned with the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq: members of Congress must carefully read the intelligence before giving the President any justification to use military force.
Come the taste of power, however, and oh my how times change. Funny how that works.

The New York Times, reprising its familiar role as conduit for anonymous White House officials leaking information too authentic and supportable to go on the record about, informed us earlier this month that six of President Obama’s “top advisers say they no longer believe the key finding of a much disputed National Intelligence Estimate about Iran, published a year before President George W. Bush left office, which said that Iranian scientists ended all work on designing a nuclear warhead in late 2003.”

According to the Times, that view came after the administration reviewed leaked documents -- presumably the debunked Times of London “nuclear trigger” story -- and information from defectors (comparisons to Ahmed Chalabi are unfair I'm sure). Importantly, the advisers conceded it was ultimately based on “their own analysis”, and not a “new formal intelligence not.” And of course it wasn’t, as I pointed out at the time, because it continues to be the view of the U.S. intelligence community -- which has a bureaucratic interest in playing up the threat of foreign foes -- that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program.

That view was reaffirmed yet again today by the Pentagon’s top intelligence official, Lieutenant General Ronal Burgess, who in an interview with Voice of America said there is no evidence Iran has decided to build nuclear weapons.

"The bottom line assessments of the NIE still hold true," he said.  "We have not seen indication that the government has made the decision to move ahead with the program.” In typical Pentagon -- and bureaucratic fashion -- Burgess didn’t rule anything out, though, echoing former boss Donald Rumsfeld. “The fact still remains that we don't know what we don't know,” he noted, adding “man” before presumably passing his bong to the bemused reporter.

Despite Burgess’ inability to know the unknowable, his unequivocal statement that Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency has not seen any “indication” -- that is, evidence that would hold up under careful review, not what might fly in a newsroom -- Iran is developing nuclear weapons stands in stark contrast to the dubious leaks from the administration. In September, for instance, ABC News’ Jake Tapper reported an anonymous “senior administration official” as stating on a press call that the enrichment facility in Qom -- the one Iran reported to the IAEA and which Obama and friends later claimed to “reveal” at a dramatic press conference, the Western media dutifully misreporting the timeline of events ever since -- was undoubtedly for weapons purposes.

"‘Primary source intelligence,'" wrote Tapper, “meaning firsthand accounts and/or satellite imaging -- provided ‘unambiguous intelligence’ that this is a facility to enrich weapons-grade uranium, the official said.” Indeed, the facility doesn’t “make sense for commercial use,” said one official, but is the “right size” for enriching weapons-grade uranium. That Iran built it as a contingency enrichment plant should the chief one at Natanz be bombed as some U.S. and Israeli commentators and officials have suggested was apparently given little consideration -- at least that’s the message the officials sought to convey to the press.

The intelligence, as it turns out, isn’t so “unambiguous” if the Pentagon’s own spy agency doesn’t buy it. Anonymous administration officials disseminating sensational and hyped up accounts of foreign threats posed by scary and irrational enemies are what grab the headlines, though, a formula for selling news embraced since probably the earliest days of the printing press. Major outlets like the Times wouldn't dare publish an on-the-record interview with the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency regarding Iran's nuclear program -- why, that's small-market stuff better left to Voice of America and the Penny Pinchers of the world. The appearance of being an insider that comes from quoting "senior White House officials" and relaying the right narrative, not necessarily the most accurate but the one most conducive to establishment desires, is what matters most to your typical major media national security reporter.

With the Obama administration spinning tall tales about non-existent WMD programs to a credulous press, the parallels to the run-up to the Iraq war are obvious, even if the White House's idea of warfare is solely economic (or covert) at this point. Just don't expect to read about it in The New York Times.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

My conversation with Iranian state television

A week ago I published a satirical article on this blog, “EXCLUSIVE: Obama orders air strikes on Guantanamo Bay,” intended to highlight the absurdity of people (I'm looking at you establishment liberals) condemning the Gitmo military prison and the government’s denial of habeas corpus to the “suspected terrorists” imprisoned there (and the others even the Obama administration concedes are innocent but whom they won’t release) while condoning extrajudicial killings by U.S. Predator drones in Yemen, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. This being the internet, that the piece is satire was of course lost on some, which probably says more about what people believe the U.S. government is capable of than anything else.

One such person is “Sarah”, employed by the Iranian government’s English-language news/propaganda service, Press TV, who emailed me yesterday with the subject line “Interview Request” after the piece was published over at Dissident Voice. Now mind you, the second paragraph of my piece quoted a supposed “senior White House official” as stating that the attack “killed a whole damn bunch of them there terrorist sons of bitches” -- “the sound of clinking glasses and celebratory gunfire audible in the background.” Further, the next paragraph said the men imprisoned at Guantanamo were there because they “were suspected of being Muslim” (well…) and having “maintained an interest in recruiting sheep to be suicide bombers.” Sheep. In other words, there were ample signs, I think, the piece was satirical -- in addition to it being categorized as “satire.”

With that in mind, here’s the email I received:
This is Sarah, Press TV's newsroom coordinator. Press TV is an English News channel being broadcasted from Iran. we just saw one of your articles "EXCLUSIVE: Barack Obama orders air strikes on Guantanamo Bay killing at least 220 detaineees" on the net. Would we be able to get you on the phone for an interview on this story? i would really appriciate it if you reply back soon and give me your contact number.
Press TV's Newsroom Coordinator
Being a bit of an asshole, I of course responded by sending my Google Voice number. About five minutes later I received a call from “Sarah” in Tehran, who conducted a fact check of my piece consisting of the question: “Is it credible?” Again, being a bit of an asshole, I assured her my sources were second-to-none and that the credibility of the piece was not in doubt, prompting her to invite me to appear on *LIVE* television in an hour. I naturally accepted. You should probably just listen to the conversation yourself:

A few minutes later I received another email from Sarah, this one in preparation for my coming appearance:
charles would you mind sending a brief profile about urself as well along with the pic, thanks
I quickly complied, sending along this bio -- “Charles Davis is a journalist based in Washington, DC, where he covers U.S. foreign policy. His work has appeared in highly credible publications throughout the world.” -- and this picture.

For those unfamiliar, that’s Emiliano Zapata, a prominent leader in the Mexican revolution, an advocate of land reform and decentralization, one of my idols for actually turning down political power rather than trying to seize it for himself (see a paper I wrote about him in college), and, as you can see, an all-around mustachioed badass. Unfortunately, I was informed that “it seems we can use black and white pics for the documentaries but only allowed to use colored pics for the live shots like news, let me see what happens…” This did not dissuade the folks at the Iranian regime’s international mouthpiece from persisting in their effort to get me on the air, though:
can we have u at the studio maybe? one of our studios is on M street in WDC, like around 9pm?
“Holy shit,” I thought, wondering how the hell I could pass myself off as a 90-years-dead Mexican revolutionary. I would also need to concoct a story -- and concoct I did, penning a tale of a CIA carrier pigeon “going rogue”, refusing to carry out its mission to inform the drone operators in Langley, VA, of their assignment to bomb Guantanamo Bay and instead flying to my apartment to spill the beans on the imminent attack, coming to me due to my “longstanding ties to the dissident carrier pigeon community.” Alas, YouTube stardom was not to be as Sarah apparently wisened up before I could tell my story on the air -- presumably because she read my Twitter feed -- never responding to my request for directions. Sigh.

Friday, January 08, 2010

War and climate change

My latest piece on an environmental issue that, as I found out, few seem willing to talk about:
Climate change has been branded a threat to national security, but a future global treaty addressing the issue is likely to exempt from regulation most of the greenhouse gases associated with overseas military activities and the world’s largest polluter—the U.S. armed forces—a fact some environmentalists are arguing will significantly undercut the effectiveness of such an agreement. The issue is potentially troubling for proponents of a treaty as it suggests that even as the Obama administration and leading Democrats push emission controls based on the perceived security threat posed by global warming, they are unwilling to address a leading contributor to the problem.
The preliminary climate change agreement announced in Copenhagen leaves unresolved many key questions, but there’s a broad consensus overseas military operations will continue to enjoy a major exemption under any eventual comprehensive, legally binding treaty. Indeed, both foreign diplomats and officials with most major environmental groups have been reticent to broach the subject for fear of alienating the U.S. government, which accounts for nearly half of global military spending.


“It can be a bit of a delicate subject,” says a former senior Defense Department official who was deeply involved in the debate over the Kyoto Protocol. “We’re the largest military in the world and we’re going to be the most penalized if military emissions are counted, so that has to be considered.”
Read the rest.

UPDATE (1/9): From the comments over at Jon Schwarz's A Tiny Revolution:
An illegal war bound by law to be eco-friendly. The obvious irony aside, it wouldn't feel that right to me if it happened (in some alternate universe, where it actually could). While less emissions is always good, I find the imagery of a spectacled ecologist high fiving generals for butchering the local resistance in an environmentally friendly manner too disturbing. (Military sprays acid instead of bombs to cause less burning buildings! World applauds!)

The injustice of it all

Sometimes life just isn't fair, John Michael Farren must be thinking. A 57 year old former deputy White House counsel under President George W. Bush, Farren is sitting in jail now after allegedly attacking his wife after she served him with divorce papers, "arraigned on charges of strangulation and attempted murder and ordered held on $2 million bail." His former boss, on the other hand, a war criminal who not only attempted to but succeeded in killing of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children in Iraq and Afghanistan -- what happens to him? Dude gets a library and a long lifetime of triple digit speaking fees, assuming he makes it through the next bag of pretzels. Ain't that a bitch.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Not to say I told you so...

Back in September 2008, I wrote a piece for Inter Press Service examining the proposed policies towards Latin America offered by both John McCain and Barack Obama. What did I find?
WASHINGTON, Sep 3 (IPS) - With an election to replace an immensely unpopular president just weeks away, Republican nominee John McCain and Democratic candidate Barack Obama have both sought to distance themselves from the record of George W. Bush - but when it comes to Latin America, neither candidate promises a major break with the policies of the last eight years.
From maintaining the embargo against Cuba to expanding efforts to fight the war on drugs in Mexico and Colombia, McCain and Obama support most aspects of current U.S. policy toward Latin America. Indeed, outside of their shared pledge to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, there is little to suggest that either candidate would overhaul the Bush administration's approach to the region.
To be fair, though he isn't the progressive messiah some of his most feverish supporters once claimed he would be -- and the more delusional amongst them claim he is -- Obama has largely fulfilled the Latin America agenda he outlined during the campaign, minus that whole closing Guantanamo thing. Indeed, in a recent analysis of Obama's actual policy toward Latin America since taking office, "More Continuity Than Change," IPS' DC Bureau Chief Jim Lobe observes that, "Nearly one year after his inauguration, hopes that President Barack Obama would bring fundamental changes to U.S. relations with Latin American have faded badly":
[D]espite a promising start with Obama's appearance and pledge to pursue "engagement based on mutual respect" at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad last April, his administration has fumbled a number of issues in ways that have contributed to what appears to be the growing disillusionment.
Most recently, the administration abruptly reversed its demand – along with that of all of the Latin American states - that [Honduran President Manuel] Zelaya, who was ousted in a military coup d'etat last June be reinstated before the November elections. And the U.S. failed to consult and reassure its sister nations in advance about a new, 10-year accord with Colombia that gives Washington access to seven military bases around the country.
Don't call it a sellout, it was obvious for years.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

The CIA's collateral damage computer algorithm -- revealed!

In October, The New Yorker's Jane Mayer wrote an excellent piece examining the Obama administration's increased reliance on unmanned Predator drones to do its killing in the ever expanding war on terror. Included in the article was this tidbit about the government's high-tech method for determining how much "collateral damage" -- innocent men, women and children killed by U.S. munitions -- is too much before some guy with a beer gut in Langley, Virginia, hits the trigger button on his Wii controller and sends them off into eternity:
Though the C.I.A.’s methodology remains unknown, the Pentagon has created elaborate formulas to help the military make such lethal calculations. A top military expert, who declined to be named, spoke of the military’s system, saying, “There’s a whole taxonomy of targets.” Some people are approved for killing on sight. For others, additional permission is needed. A target’s location enters the equation, too. If a school, hospital, or mosque is within the likely blast radius of a missile, that, too, is weighed by a computer algorithm before a lethal strike is authorized.
Well, thanks to a high-level source of mine deep within the U.S. intelligence community, I can now reveal a screenshot of the government's covert computer alogrithm. You math people out there try to make some sense of it:

Based on my reporting, this is a step up from the CIA's previous test for determining how many civilian deaths it should expect to incur from its actions: __________.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Bono: worst celebrity ever?

(U2 singer Bono, pictured right, coming to the aid of an unknown delusional man.)

Bono, the physical manifestation of all that is wrong with the world and the leader of some band called U2, has a column in The New York Times -- no seriously,  a column in The New York fucking Times, a followup to last week's op-ed from the Insane Clown Posse on the merits of a public option -- opining on that which is wrong in the world and how to make it right. As a rich rock star, one of the problems is obviously the internet and the power it gives people to make the enforcement of "intellectual property" laws an endeavor as laughably absurd as the intellectual argument for having them in the first place. As a great humanitarian, however, his argument is necessarily cloaked in the defense of the "fledgling songwriter" and the bus fare's worth of royalties they stand to lose out on because you don't feel like paying $18.99 for a Miley Cyrus album.

Rather than go on about by distaste for Bono, though, here's an article I wrote in college you can read that covers my feelings fairly well, subtly titled, "U2: The Word Band in the World?", the publishing of which in my school paper I'm pretty sure cost me an internship several years back with a major news company when the the woman interviewing me for the position turned out, to my great misfortune, to be a rather huge fan of the Irish rockers.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Obama administration 'analysis' trumps 2007 NIE on Iran

During the lead up to the 2003 invasion, the Bush administration infamously bypassed what they deemed insufficiently frightening intelligence about Iraqi WMDs coming from the CIA by creating their own unit staffed with political appointees, the Office of Special Plans, to deliver “raw intelligence” (think “Taxi Cab Confessions: Baghdad”) to the White House and the president’s speechwriters. The Obama administration, it appears, is now more or less doing the same thing, preferring the analysis of its political appointees to that of its intelligence services.

According to The New York Times, “Mr. Obama’s top advisers say they no longer believe the key finding of a much disputed National Intelligence Estimate about Iran, published a year before President George W. Bush left office, which said that Iranian scientists ended all work on designing a nuclear warhead in late 2003.” As a candidate, Obama praised the NIE as a sober reality check on the Bush administrations heated fearmongering on Iran. As president, however, he is relying not on that 2007 NIE -- the consensus view of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies -- but on his politically appointed advisers, people like United Against Nuclear Iran co-founder and National Security Council member Dennis Ross, who after “reviewing new documents that have leaked out of Iran and debriefing defectors lured to the West,” say “they believe the work on weapons design is continuing on a smaller scale.” As the official stenographers at the Times note, this review “did not amount to a new formal intelligence assessment” -- an oddity, for sure -- but was based rather “on intelligence reports, information from allies, and their own analysis”. In light of the Iraq war and the well-observed penchant government officials have for lying, it’s not asking too much to request that said officials cite something more verifiable then “their own analysis” when making a claim that will be used to justify further measures of economic warfare against another country, and make it that much more easy for Israel to claim justification should the Netanyahu government decide to launch air strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities. It was too much for the Times reporters, though.

The article instead dutifully fulfills its role as an amplifier for the administration’s alarmist reading of Iran’s nuclear program, stating that claims it is civilian in nature are “roundly rejected by Western officials and, in internal reports, by international nuclear inspectors.” This, apparently, despite the fact that both the incoming and outgoing chiefs of the IAEA say they have not seen any evidence Iran is developing nukes, while the agency declares in its official reports that its inspectors have verified the non-diversion of nuclear material to such a purpose. No doubt the IAEA continues to raise questions about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but that’s not to say it has accused it have being in outright violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty either, rather saying Iran’s actions have at times been “inconsistent” with the accord.

The Obama administration’s assessment also differs from what its own top intelligence official, Admiral Dennis Blair, testified to Congress earlier this year. It likewise contradicts a recent report from the Congressional Research Service on Iran’s nuclear program, which noted that the CIA and other intelligence agencies stand by the 2007 intelligence assessment finding Iran halted whatever nuclear weapons work it may have engaged in. Part of the problem lies in the ambiguities of the language the administration employs. While dimmer bulbs might make assertions liable to be challenged and proven wrong by events in the near future, like “Iran is building a nuke that will be completed in six months,” for instance, suaver propagandists like those employed in the Obama administration are more likely to accuse Iran, like they do in the Times article, of continuing to engage in work on a “weapons design” on “a smaller scale,” a claim that could conceivably apply to Googling “how to build a nuclear bomb”. It’s therefore exceedingly difficult to prove such a statement is a lie, even though the average reader is likely to interpret such an assertion as meaning Iran is actively building a suitcase nuke for delivery in Manhattan -- not an unintended effect, mind you.

The ultimate problem lies in the whole premise of seeking to block Iran not only from having a nuclear weapon, but from achieving the “breakout capacity” to build one should it so desire or continuing the undefined “smaller scale” work on a weapons design. At the heart of this endeavor, beside a desire to punish a country that refuses to accept Western hegemony (it certainly isn’t about human rights when Israel and Egypt are raking in the U.S. foreign aid), is a doomed attempt to suppress the spread of knowledge. The very medium that lets all those urban Iranians express their distaste for the ruling regime on Twitter is the one that pipes in their LOLcats, porn and, yes Virginia, designs for an atom bomb, courtesy the U.S. government. So long as Iran maintains a domestic capability to enrich uranium, a half-decent military capability and an internet connection, it could probably build a nuclear weapon at some point in the future -- but not without the whole world knowing about it, as it would need to withdraw from the non-proliferation treaty and kick out international inspectors. A policy based on thwarting the inevitable -- the spread of knowledge, in this case of how to make a nuclear weapons -- is not one likely to be met with much success. But perhaps that’s the point.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

'Obama orders air strikes on Guantanamo Bay'

WASHINGTON -- A series of U.S. predator drone strikes just after dawn this morning killed at least 220 suspected terrorists, many presumed to have ties with al-Qaeda, at the naval detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, according to two senior White House officials.

“We hit the jackpot,” said one official who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. “We killed a whole damn bunch of them there terrorist sons of bitches,” the source said, the sound of clinking glasses and celebratory gunfire audible in the background.

The strikes come just days after the attempted Christmas Day attack on a Northwest Airlines flight by a 23 year old Nigerian man alleged to have received ineffective crotch bomb training in Yemen. President Barack Obama himself authorized the mission, according to the officials, upon receiving word that nearly half of the men based at the Guantanamo Bay facility were Yemeni nationals, some of whom were suspected of being Muslim and having maintained an interest in herding sheep, possibly in order to recruit them as suicide bombers.

In launching the attack, Mr. Obama has not only diffused a perceived threat to U.S. national security, but he has fulfilled a key campaign pledge to shutter the Guantanamo detention facility, which had become an object of widespread international condemnation. Meeting the pledge had proved difficult, however, in the face of congressional opposition, with GOP lawmakers and centrist Democrats seeking to block the planned release of the Yemeni men housed there to their native country, where they argued it would be more cumbersome and expensive to bomb them.

While the U.S.’s legal authority to imprison men and boys at the Guantanamo detention center has been a matter of some dispute, its right to conduct drone attacks against targets it deems potential threats has provoked little controversy either at home or abroad, at least in countries populated with white people. Indeed, even as Mr. Obama has overseen a significant escalation in drone attacks, authorizing strikes in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, in addition to U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he’s received a Nobel Peace Prize, a recognition of his efforts to promote peace through war.

Given international acceptance of the drone attacks, the Obama administration expects the same level of support for today’s strikes, which likewise took place on foreign soil -- as it happens, in a country deemed by the U.S. government to be a state-sponsor of terror. As one American official put it, “if we can kill ‘em without trial in Yemen, why the hell couldn’t we do the same a whole heckuva lot closer to our own shores?”

Though questioned by some human rights groups long considered hostile to freedom, the Guantanamo attack has been met with overwhelming praise from those who actually matter, with political analysts predicting a healthy boost in the Mr. Obama’s approval ratings among the general public as well.

“The president has shown that he’s tough, a regular blue collar guy not afraid to throw a few punches and kill a couple hundred bad guys trapped in cages when he needs to, which is really going to help him win those independents come 2012,” said University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato in an interview. “You can’t overestimate the electorate’s hunger for mass killing. Monday Night Football’s got nothing on Shock and Awe.”

Cable news commentators were similarly aflutter with praise for Mr. Obama. “Can’t you just imagine this guy’s masculine musk? I mean, I just want to douse myself in whatever his sweat glands are emitting,” said a visibly aroused Chris Matthews on his afternoon MSNBC program, Hardball.

But not all praised the president’s decision. In a fiery speech on the Senate floor, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Mr. Obama’s challenger during the 2008 election, denounced the administration’s approach to the war on terror as timid, “gook league” and lacking in theatrics.

“Why weren’t these men doused in acid and set ablaze amid fireworks and the loud and proud blaring of the national anthem? C’mon,” McCain thundered. “Why was there no consideration of the history books, here -- or pay-per-view? And frankly, my friends, why weren’t these men killed the moment our intelligence agencies learned they were actively living in the Middle East?”

A couple of other people also disagreed with the president’s decision, questioning the morality and wisdom of handing one fallible man the unilateral power to order the death of anyone he chooses, but no one really takes them seriously.